The unedifying Brexit debate: learning lessons from across the pond


(CC BY 2.0) Silke Remmery / Flickr

(CC BY 2.0) Silke Remmery / Flickr


Whether you were for or against Brexit, most would agree that the referendum campaign was far from instructive. It brought out the worst in British politics: primarily two sets of over-privileged, middle-aged white males throwing opinions, thinly disguised as ‘facts’, and insults at each other. It was hard to hear any of the diverse voices that make up the UK above the din and incivility. How could most citizens be well informed against this barrage of noise?

Referendums are powerful because they are political equality in action: the judgment of each citizen is taken to be of equal worth. But to form considered judgments, we, the citizens, need good information and a clear understanding of the accuracy of the opinions presented by those on different sides of the argument. This was far from what either the Leave or Remain sides offered.

It would be a retrograde step democratically to move away from such a direct mode of decision-making that engages significant swathes of the population. When it comes to major constitutional issues (such as membership of the EU) that shape the rules of the game of our political system, there are good democratic reasons why citizens should have significant decision-making power, rather than leaving decisions to politicians alone who have strong incentives to protect their particular electoral-party interests. While UK referendums remain advisory, the citizens’ verdict is accepted because it would be political suicide for Parliament to overturn the directly expressed wish of the people.

The question then is, if we are to continue with the practice of referendums – and their use is certainly on the increase – how can we avoid the worst excesses of the recent campaign? How can we make sure that citizens are better informed when casting their ballots?

In a blog published soon after the result, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, suggests three areas for reform. Firstly, more energy and resources need to be placed on education and awareness raising. Secondly, the accuracy of information must be independently monitored (perhaps by the Electoral Commission). Thirdly, the timing of referendums needs to be taken out of the hands of the government. After coordinating a letter from more than 250 academics during the campaign decrying the high level of disinformation, the Constitution Unit at UCL has launched an inquiry into its conduct. Let us hope that it has some effect.

We can add to this list the need to ensure clarity in the question put to voters. This might seem counterintuitive – after all, it was an apparently simple choice between Leave or Remain. But victory for Leave does not represent a clear-cut decision. There are a variety of different ways of realizing Brexit, the balance to be struck between access to the European Single Market and control of immigration being just one dimension. Rather than generating clarity, a whole new set of trade-offs and tensions has emerged from the vote.

The UK is a relative latecomer to referendums and has important lessons to learn from other countries. Many states in the US, for example, have more than a century of experience of direct voting, including the citizens’ initiative in which citizens are able to place propositions directly on the ballot for a binding vote. This is direct democracy in action as compared to the UK’s advisory referendum.

But most states have at some point suffered similar unedifying experiences as the Remain and Leave campaigns with citizens finding it difficult to source reliable information. In Oregon, they have been experimenting with an interesting democratic innovation to partly counter this tendency: the Citizen Initiative Review (CIR). The CIR is a panel of 20-24 randomly selected citizens that is brought together to deliberate on a ballot proposition. Over three to five days, they hear from expert witnesses and stakeholders, discuss the rival claims and then write a ‘Citizens’ Statement’ that indicates which information they believe to be reliable and relevant. The statement appears in the official voters’ pamphlet distributed to every registered voter.

Ongoing research on the CIR process shows that those voters who read the Citizens’ Statement dramatically increase their knowledge and it can shift their vote. Voters view the statement as reliable because it has been written by fellow citizens who have no vested interest in the outcome. Similar evidence emerged when the British Columbia Citizens Assembly (BCCA) made recommendations for a provincial referendum on electoral reform. The majority of voters who knew about the BCCA followed its advice. Those who were skeptical of political elites appreciated that the BCCA was made up of ordinary people like themselves; others recognized that assembly members had gained expertise and so were worth listening to. Both sets of voters were confident that the assembly was a reliable and trustworthy institution.[1] How useful would this democratic innovation have been before the Brexit referendum?

When we come to the next referendum in the UK, we need to ensure that citizens can access good quality information, as well as have access to spaces for informed debate and discussion. It is clear that many do not trust the political class to provide this themselves. There are many important reforms that could improve the way we do referendums, including the information that is available to the public. The integration of a citizens’ assembly, akin to the Oregon CIR, into the process is one example well worth exploring. There has been some experimentation recently in the UK with such assemblies on which we can draw, along with impressive international experience. This would not solve all the problems we experienced during the Brexit campaign, but it would guarantee at least one calm moment of reasoned reflection and deliberation, even if the rest of the time politicians were behaving badly. Voters would have a reliable source of information generated by a diverse body of fellow citizens on which they could draw to arrive at more informed and considered judgments. Whether this would have changed the result of the Brexit vote is unknown. What is critical though is that democracy relies on the quality of its judgments.

[1] Many commentators on the BCCA suggest that it failed because the referendum was lost. This is a harsh judgment because the legislature set a testing 60% supermajority – the final vote was 57.69%. If there was a failure in the process, it was arguably in not publicizing the BCCA well enough. When voters were aware of the assembly, they were far more likely to follow its recommendations. Improved publicity and the extra 2.31% of votes would likely have been achieved.

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